Death is very much in the news media and in our minds and hearts these troubled days. Today’s readings are appropriately about death, but more importantly, about life, love, and resurrection — the drama of salvation. In the Church’s preparation for the Feast of Easter, the fifth Sunday of Lent is designated for the Third Scrutiny or examination of Candidates for baptism and full reception into the Church. The readings for today must be approached from this perspective to understand how they illuminate the minds and hearts of those who are turning their whole life over to the power of the Spirit of Christ.
To begin with, in the most famous and striking passage from Ezekiel, God promises the people of Jerusalem, “you will know
that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live….”
The word that Ezekiel uses in this passage serves as a link with the opening passage of scripture, the first verse of Genesis: ‘ruach,’ the spirit of God brooding over the waters of Creation. The word for “spirit” became synonymous with life itself, because it actually means “breath” not only in Hebrew, but also Greek and Latin. It is through God’s breath in the world that life appears and, importantly, reappears. And in this passage from Ezekiel we find the powerful image of the spirit of God moving over the scattered bones of corpses strewn in the desert, recreating them, clothing them in flesh and fiber, and breathing new life into them. Israel would be reborn by the spirit of God.
In the letter the Romans, St. Paul identifies the true source of life in a world deeply in love with death: just as God breathes vitality into ancient very mortal remains which prefigured the resurrection of Jesus, so too, God will raise us to new life by that same spirit:
“Though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.”
John’s gospel moves in a different direction, but the teaching is the same. The story of the death and raising of Lazarus is, in fact, the turning point in the Gospel of John. It contains the shortest and most moving verse in all of scripture: “Jesus wept.” Exactly why Jesus wept is not told to us, although the bystanders think they know. But perhaps it was because Jesus also knew that what he was about to do would set forces in motion that would end his own life by restoring life to his friend. The climax comes when Jesus cries in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ Jesus’ words, Jesus’ breath, moves into the stone tomb, over and into the dead body of his friend, and life is rekindled. The dead man comes out, his feet and hands bound with linen bands and a cloth round his face. And Jesus says to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go.’
Unbind him and let him go. The point of this story, in the original catechesis of the Church, our lesson for this Sunday in Lent, is found in these two commands.
“Loosen him” is actually what Jesus says. Set him free. It was the term used for breaking prisoners’ bonds. The second word of Jesus is “Let him go.” The word literally means ‘to send away,’ and was used for canceling debts, remitting penalties, and pardoning offenses. It is the word we translate as “forgive.”
Despite its prominence in Jesus’ teaching and Christian preaching, the word for “forgive” is found only here in the gospel of John — his way of pointing to it very loudly. And so the question we bring to the story of Lazarus is, What does forgiveness have to do with being raised from the dead? Is it only a metaphor for a new way of life? The fulfillment in Jesus of the ancient promise to Ezekiel: deliverance from the power of sin and death?
Certainly that: Jesus freely submitted to the power of death and thus robbed it of its “sting.” Death is no longer the penalty of sin. But to see death merely as life’s closing moment is not to be delivered from death. Salvation is, rather, the ability to live in the freedom of Christ, no longer subject to the power of death in our world. And that is what the story of Lazarus is about for us especially on this fifth Sunday of Lent in the year of COVID-19 as catechumens continue to ponder the meaning of Christian commitment.
First, it is obvious that to the extent that sin still rules human life, we still experience the reign of death in the power of the world to determine the meaning and value of our lives, particularly in the subjection of the innocent, the defenseless, and the poor to the powers of greed, social indifference, and oppression. This is what it means to be buried alive, entombed.
For Jesus the way out of all the hate, murder, and suffering that mar our world is surprisingly simple. “Free him and let him go” — which is to say ‘forgive one another.’ Although the cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching, forgiveness has become so familiar to us we have forgotten what it means. It means to let go, to let up, to put it behind us, to lay off, to cancel all debts. As Jesus taught it forgiveness alone can undo the chain of violence and revenge by cutting through it cleanly, stopping it here and now. And that make us uncomfortable. We prefer revenge. We want to get even. We want our enemies to go to hell….
What makes us even more uncomfortable is the unusual characteristic of real forgiveness, that it takes someone else to do it. Lazarus is alive, but still tied hand and foot. He cannot untie himself but needs to be cut loose. Like Lazarus, we are constrained by the consequences and effects of our own sinfulness, and need to be released, to be cut free. We can’t do that ourselves. In all of scripture there is not a single mention of “forgiving oneself,” and for a good reason. It is spiritually, psychologically, morally, and even legally impossible to do so. And we can be forgiven, Jesus tells us, only to the extent that we forgive others. The ability to be forgiven comes through being willing to forgive, as we are about to repeat once again in the Lord’s Prayer.
It starts with each one of us. We need each other to be truly free. And we will know the reality of the new life that courses through the world, renewing the very flesh on our dry and brittle bones, and restoring spirit to body, when forgiveness flows like a river from person to person, from group to group, nation to nation. And that is resurrection and life.